When Should I Let My Child Play Tackle Football?

Parents love to watch their children excel in sports. Many parents wonder when it is safe for their children to begin playing tackle football. There has recently been a great deal of discussion around the risk of concussions, specifically in impact sports like tackle football. So many question what the real risks of playing tackle football are at a young age. There is a great deal of research that has been done on the risks of concussions in young athletes. The information revealed in these studies can be useful for parents wondering when it is safe for their children to begin playing tackle football.

From an anatomical perspective, the second cervical vertebrae in the neck (C2) is not fully developed until a child reaches the age of 12. Once the spine is fully developed, there is bony bump at the top of the vertebrae that provides full stability to the spine. Without this stability, there is risk of spinal cord damage during impact sports.

Regarding concussion injuries, players with multiple concussions have a higher likelihood of developing issues such as memory loss, dementia and depression. A study recently published in Translational Psychiatry reports “children who played football before the age of 12 had significantly greater cognitive and behavioral issues as adults” compared to those who began after age 12. Specifically, risks of apathy and depression rise significantly in the group of young athletes playing tackle football before the age of 12.

These findings reinforce a previous study in 2015 that concluded players that initiated full contact play prior to 12 years old can lead to impaired memory and cognitive function. Certain advocacy groups promote activities like flag football prior to 7th grade in order avoid impact activities and the potential detrimental risks that come along with it.

Speaking as a sports fan, I love to see kids develop skills early. Speaking as a physical therapist, there is anatomical and physiological rationale to have athletes avoid impact activities until the significant growth and maturation phases of the spine and brain growth have occurred. The decision of when to initiate any impact sport is a challenging one. I have taken into consideration the above information and have elected to keep my boys out of tackle football until the age of 13. I hope that all parents consider the facts available in order to make the most appropriate decision for their family.

If your preventative measures have failed and you have a young athlete with a concussion, please do not wait to seek treatment. Learn more about concussion treatment plans here and please feel free to call any of our locations for more information.

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Scott DeVries